Essays Fiction Issue

Academic Discourse and Adulterous Intercourse

What campus novels can teach us

Everyone needs escape reading, and for me it’s always been campus novels. Maybe that’s because as an undergraduate I attended the two colleges about which more academic fiction has been written than any others—Bennington and Harvard. Thinly veiled Benningtons appear in a small shelf of novels by its celebrity alums, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Jonathan Lethem. And as for Harvard—well, the books are legion, perhaps because life at Harvard so often seems to mimic a campus novel.

When I arrived at Bennington, as a seventeen-year-old freshman from southern California, I’d never set eyes on the place. I’d never seen snow fall, or a maple leaf turn red—but I’d read about those things, just as I’d read, in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, about an “absolutely Bennington or Sarah Lawrence type,” a girl on her way to New Haven for a Yale football game who “looked like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress.” I got to southern Vermont in 1971, a full decade after the publication of Franny and Zooey, and I wore my own black leotard under blue denim overalls. I didn’t dance or paint or sculpt in my scuffed work boots, but the college had given me more financial aid than any other school (probably because the tuition was higher as well), and I’d said yes.

In some ways I fit the stereotype, as the admissions committee must have divined when it offered me the money. At the time I was a serious musician, and I spent most of my days in the subterranean practice rooms of Jennings, an immense stone mansion that housed the music department. Jennings was rumored to have been the inspiration for Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and few students felt comfortable practicing there late at night. Jackson had been a faculty wife at Bennington in the 1940s and ’50s, and when I read the book I wondered how much her distress at the role had figured in “The Lottery” and Hill House—in which an anthropologist gathers material for his “definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances” by conducting experiments in the occult on young female volunteers. At least Jackson got some great writing out of her suppressed rage. As a babysitter for the children of Bennington’s mostly male professoriat, I’d known other wives to simply turn silent, or take off for New York City, leaving a bewildered husband behind in one of the attic apartments in Jennings, grading the papers of those girls in leotards.

As a transfer student at Harvard, I seemed once again to have walked right into (or out of) a popular novel. Everyone finds something to identify with in Erich Segal’s Love Story—how else to explain the astronomical sales? But I actually was, like Jenny Cavilleri, a harpsichord-playing ’Cliffie on full scholarship who fell in love with and eventually married the preppy scion of an old New England family. (I’d been playing the Fifth Brandenberg, Jenny’s signature concerto, since high school!) When I was turned down for the same postgraduate fellowship to study in Paris that Jenny had won (I, too, had never seen that city “in my whole goddamn life”), I took some comfort in the possibility that this rejection had saved me from contracting leukemia and dying a tragic early death. Instead it was my marriage that ended—after nearly thirty years—as Jenny and Oliver Barrett’s might have too, if Jenny had survived.

Not long ago, as part of a downsizing effort, I gathered up forty or so campus novels from bookshelves around the house, many of them acid-burned paperbacks left from the summer I worked in a used bookstore in Harvard Square when I was between colleges. I stacked them in small piles on the floor of my office, attempting to sort them into themes, trends, anything at all that might justify serious study—or even just keeping them around.

In a recent study of the genre, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, the Princeton literary critic Elaine Showalter divided her own collection into decades and tracked the protagonists’ growth in political awareness from the “Ivory Tower” fifties to the present. My books hardly seemed amenable to that kind of treatment, aside from a handful of novels by Alison Lurie: Love and Friendship, The War Between the Tates, Foreign Affairs, Truth and Consequences—unfailingly brilliant satires of faculty life that have appeared at the rate of about one per decade since 1962, and could themselves provide the material for such an investigation.

My collection included mystery novels by Dorothy Sayers, Jane Langton, and Amanda Cross (a.k.a. the late Columbia professor Carolyn Heilbrun), set on college campuses or with college professors as detectives. I had some soft porn, one book for each of my colleges: Robert H. Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment, a 1966 utopian fantasy riffing on the futuristic notion of co-ed dorms, and Stephen H. Yafa’s Three in the Attic, from 1967, in which a rainbow coalition of Bennington types hold a Williams man hostage after they discover he’s been three-timing them, then plot to kill him with too much sex. I even had some nonfiction in my stash: Gail Thain Parker’s 1979 diatribe, The Writing on the Wall: Inside Higher Education in America, an indictment of political correctness written long before the phrase was coined. Parker, who became the youngest college president in America when she took the top job at Bennington in 1972, was really letting fly at the ultra-liberal school that had let her go in 1976, after she’d issued an agenda for eviscerating reforms called “Future Directions”—and, according to the campus rumor mill, had an extramarital affair with an American Civilization professor.

Walking among the piles, where Randall Jarrell, Erich Segal, and Philip Roth mingled unsteadily with Mary McCarthy, Marilyn French, and Jane Smiley, I decided that campus novels were really of only two sorts: books about students, and books about professors—the “lifers,” to use Showalter’s term.

Novels about college students remind us of what we loved about being in college—and why we’re glad we left it behind. They are also overwhelmingly about sex—either, as in The Harrad Experiment and Three in the Attic, improbably euphoric fantasies, or, more often, fumbling and sophomoric confessionals. Many are written by authors just barely out of college, clever enough to write something publishable but not yet old enough to have gained perspective on the sexual initiations or romantic failures they feel compelled to broadcast to the world. That’s why at least two major American authors have written campus novels that they later regretted.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was so embarrassed by the silly love tale he anonymously spun in his 1828 first novel, Fanshawe, set on a campus modeled after the Bowdoin College he had attended only a few years before, that he begged his family and friends to dispose of their copies shortly after the book was in print. He heaved a sigh of relief three years later when a warehouse fire destroyed any copies that had gone unsold—and that was most of them. Yet Fanshawe is worth reading if only because it is, by my reckoning, the first American campus novel, and quite possibly the first on either side of the Atlantic. Showalter awards her “first” to Trollope’s 1857 Barchester Towers, while conceding that this “ur-narrative of academic politics” is really “about the bickering of provincial Anglican clergy.”

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Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, which won the 2006 Francis Parkman Prize and the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

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